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Saturday, Feb 4, 2023

Water Cutbacks Trim Ventura Crop Yields

The fourth year of drought is taking its toll on the $2 billion Ventura County agricultural industry, with production of the region’s prize strawberries declining and farmers bracing for higher irrigation costs as they fight drought-related pests and water-use quotas. So far, the county’s aquifer has sustained most farm production, so bulldozers haven’t leveled orchards in Camarillo as they have in the San Joaquin Valley, and thousands of acres aren’t lying fallow on the Oxnard Plain. But farmers are planting fewer crops and digging more wells as they deal with strict limits on water and the threat of fines imposed by agencies that control pumping to protect the region’s water supply. Conservation has long been vital to the success of Ventura County’s farmers because they irrigate crops primarily with groundwater, rather than imported water, said John Krist, chief executive at the non-profit Farm Bureau of Ventura County. Micro-sprinklers and hydroponic systems are the norm. But a string of four bone-dry years cannot be ignored. “The drought is having an effect on the quality of the crop and the size of the yield,” Krist said. “A grower who would normally plant three or four crop rotations in a year might dial that back to one or two.” According to an annual report from the county’s agricultural commissioner, local crops amounted to $2 billion in 2013, the most recent year of available data. While that represented a 6.7 percent gain from the previous year due to increases in avocado, pepper and cilantro crops, the region’s $609 million top cash crop – strawberries – decreased by 12 percent. It isn’t primarily lack of water harming the strawberries, which get drip irrigation, but dry weather that favors pests like spider mites that can ruin crops, the report noted. Last September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed three bills that together created the California Sustainable Groundwater Act, authorizing state agencies to monitor pumping and levy fees for use. While it was the first statewide mandate on groundwater, local agencies have controlled pumping and levied fines for decades. In Ventura County, the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency was created by the California Legislature in 1982. Since the water districts have ratcheted down allotments, some farmers are choosing not to plant all their available acreage, which saves them money on groundwater fees as well as labor and seedlings. But most berry and vegetable acreage in the county is leased land, with annual rates ranging from $3,000 to $45,000 an acre. Growers need multiple harvests every year to pay their rent. In a drought, however, the question is how to minimize losses. “If you go over your water allotment, the surcharges could be $60,000 to $80,000 in fines,” Krist said. “Compared to that, a $20,000 to $30,000 hit on the rent is a sensible decision.” Craig Underwood, chief executive of Underwood Ranches LP in Camarillo, grows peppers, celery, lemons, avocados and canning tomatoes. So far, he hasn’t changed his cropping patterns, but he plans to drill new wells and is in wait-and-see mode for the drought to end. “If we don’t have rain this winter, things will change dramatically,” he said. “There are so many drilling rigs operating in the valley it’s scary. Water is more valuable than ever.” Acre-foot economics Krist at the Farm Bureau said that about 85 percent of Ventura County’s water comes from ground pumping. It also gets surface water from rivers and reservoirs in Piru and Casitas. Only 3 to 4 percent of the water is imported, and most of it goes to city water systems. Kirst said it’s hard to cite a specific price for water, because some farmers have wells on their property, and because in addition to the water, the farmer must pay for the electricity to pump the water to the surface, sometimes from hundreds of feet underground. But in general, a farmer pumping water from a private well on his land enjoys the cheapest form of irrigation, at a cost of less than $200 an acre-foot, plus the cost of electricity for the pumps. But private wells may not provide enough water, so farmers also tap wells owned by mutual water companies or districts. These groups charge pumping fees, which in some cases can elevate the price to $200 to $350 for an acre-foot, Krist explained – though that still compares favorably to imported water that can run up to $1,000 an acre-foot. Berries are the most water-intensive local crops, using about 3 to 3.5 acre-feet annually, while avocados are the least at 1.5 to 1.7 acre-feet, he said. The dry weather of the drought favors avocados, which partly explains why the crop increased by 85 percent to $210 million in 2013, according to the county report. Chris Woodard is a farmer with 10 acres in Fillmore where he raises Valencia oranges and golden nugget tangerines. He gets his water from the non-profit Fillmore Irrigation Co. for $130 an acre-foot, plus his pumping costs. He says the price of water has risen about 10 percent a year for the last several years. “Due to the cost of water, people have cut back,” he said. “I’ve gone through and put in smaller sprinkler heads to reduce water consumption.” James Du Bois, regional water resources manager in Oxnard for Driscoll’s, a large berry distribution and marketing company headquartered in Watsonville, said that dependence on groundwater means that in Ventura County, farmers won’t face a zero-water emergency like farmers in the Central Valley. However, groundwater has its limits so he expects a steady decline in supplies. “Even in wet years, there can be interruptions and with this drought, there is more of a chance for that,” he said. “There are doubts on whether groundwater can sustain users.” Also, Mike Mobley, president of Progressive Land Management, a lemon orchard operator in Santa Paula, said groundwater contains salts and minerals not found in fresh rainwater. Continual use of groundwater builds up the salt content in the soil, weakening the plants. “We have seen higher minerals in the water, so the trees don’t do as well,” he said. “But we don’t have an alternate source of water so we keep pumping.” Mobley said some farmers on the outskirts of Ventura are bracing for water-rate increases of 20 to 40 percent. And in nearby El Rio, north of Oxnard, some wells are “sucking air” as the water table falls. And there are non-drought related factors farmers are dealing with. Mobley predicted the county’s strawberry crop will continue to decline in part because of competition from Mexican growers with lower production costs. “Certainly this year, berries were unprofitable with large losses per acre,” he said. “They have made up for it with more row crops such as celery, lettuce and broccoli. They have changed cropping patterns, but there are some places where the land has gone fallow because there isn’t water available for all the acres.” Dry future? Underwood, who is the sole pepper supplier to Huy Fong Foods Inc., the Irwindale maker of the wildly popular Sriracha pepper sauce, has adapted to the drought so far. But he’s concerned because he has no idea how long the dry spell will last. “Nobody has the ability to predict at what point the aquifers would be exhausted,” he said. “It’s so complicated if that happens. Will farms have to give up their water to support the cities? All we think and talk about these days is water.” Krist predicted that if the drought continues, water will become so expensive that only well-capitalized businesses will be able to outlast the dryness, leading to consolidation in the industry. Du Bois at Driscoll’s cites one positive result from the drought. The newest phase of the Groundwater Recovery Enhancement and Treatment, or GREAT project, a new facility in Oxnard, came on line last month. The $55 million advanced wastewater treatment plant uses microfiltration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide. The treated water is used for irrigation of golf courses and the non-potable needs of local industries, as well as agriculture. It is projected to deliver about 5,000 new acre feet of water annually to the region. GREAT’s first phase was a plant that desalinates 7,000 acre-feet of brackish groundwater annually; it came online in 2008. “I think it’s happening faster because of the drought,” Du Bois said. “That’s an example of the kinds of supply projects that need to come online.” Du Bois and Krist both said water will become more expensive in the future, but farmers will have to adapt. “Are we in the fourth year of a four-year drought or a 20-year drought?” Krist asked. “Based on that answer, the future looks very different. But agriculture in Ventura County will survive, even if it goes on for 20 years.”

Joel Russel
Joel Russel
Joel Russell joined the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2006 as a reporter. He transferred to sister publication San Fernando Valley Business Journal in 2012 as managing editor. Since he assumed the position of editor in 2015, the Business Journal has been recognized four times as the best small-circulation tabloid business publication in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. Previously, he worked as senior editor at Hispanic Business magazine and editor of Business Mexico.

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